EU leaders agree on tough stance at special Brexit summit

Daniel Boffey and Jennifer Rankin in Brussels

EU leaders have unanimously agreed tough negotiating guidelines for Brexit talks with the UK, suggesting they will demand that Britain agrees on payments to the bloc before considering a new trade deal.

The heads of the remaining 27 EU countries agreed to adopt the draft guidelines issued by Donald Tusk last month less than 15 minutes into a special summit in Brussels on Saturday.

The European council president tweeted that a “firm and fair political mandate” for the negotiations was now ready. A senior EU source said the leaders’ decision took only one minute of discussion.

When the formal negotiations between the EU and the UK begin in June, the British government will be told it needs to resolve the key divorce issues of citizens’ rights, the estimated €60bn (£51bn) divorce bill and the Irish border before any talks on a future trade deal can begin.

As he arrived at the summit earlier in the day, the French president, François Hollande, said: “There will inevitably be a price and a cost for Britain, it’s the choice they made.

“We must not be punitive, but at the same time it’s clear that Europe knows how to defend its interests, and that Britain will have a less good position outside the EU than in the EU.”

The comments were echoed by the Belgian prime minister, Charles Michel, who said there was no such thing as a “free Brexit”.

Asked about the British prime minister’s claim that she will be strengthened by an election victory, Hollande, who is now in his last week as president, said: “That is an election argument that I can understand, but this is not an argument against the European Union. Why? Because the bases, the principles, the objectives are already fixed. These will be the lines that will be chosen by the negotiators and there will be no others.”

Luxembourg’s prime minister, Xavier Bettel, also ruled out the idea of Theresa May gaining any advantage from an election win. “It’s an internal problem she wants to resolve in the Conservative party, to have not a hard Brexit or a soft Brexit, but Theresa’s Brexit,” he said. “We are very united. You seem surprised, but it’s a fact.”

The EU’s chief Brexit negotiator, Michel Barnier, said it was in Britain’s interests for the EU to be unified, as it would boost the chances of a deal.

“This extraordinary meeting shows the unity of the 27 on a clear line, but this unity is not directed against Britain, I think that it is also in its interest,” he said.

The Dutch prime minister, Mark Rutte, said that only once there was sufficient trust between the EU nations and Britain on the core issues could both sides proceed to discuss future relations.

Rutte, who stressed the importance of Britain to the Dutch economy, told reporters that “as you get to a certain level, as far as possible, and say now we are confident about this, then we have to swiftly start talking about the future relationships trade and also politics”.

The German chancellor, Angela Merkel, had earlier in the week accused some in the UK of being deluded about the consequences of leaving the EU, but offered a softer tone in Brussels.

“We want to have good relations with Great Britain in the future, but we want to represent our interests as the 27. So far this has been a real success,” she said.

“We will hold the negotiations on separation first and then at a certain point when the substantive points in the separation negotations we will come to a point when we can talk about the future.

“The separation negotiations on the rights of citizens of our states in the UK and of UK citizens in the EU. Also financial questions are part of the separation questions.”

There is some pessimism in Brussels about the prospect of a deal being struck over the next two years, though some EU officials have taken heart from the fact that May has not recently repeated her claim that “no deal is better than a bad deal” despite being pushed to do so by politicians in favour of a hard Brexit.

“We are convinced that no deal is in no one’s interest. We appreciate the fact that the tone of the debate in the UK on this issue has changed,” said a senior EU official on Friday.

Asked, however, to respond to May’s claims on the general election campaign trail that member states were preparing to “line up to oppose us”, one senior EU diplomat said: “She’s right. She should not underestimate the commitment to unity.”

Key negotiating points for the EU27

1. There will be no “cherry picking” of the four core single market freedoms, which are “indivisible”. This rules out government’s hope of keeping “elements of a single market” without free movement of people.

2. The 27 countries will negotiate with Britain as a unified block, relying on the principle that “nothing is agreed until everything is agreed”. No individual countries will be allowed backchannel chats on future trade deals while the transition is still being talked through.

3. There should be a phased approach to Britain’s withdrawal. The first phase will set out to “avoid disruption” from an “abrupt change”, and the main priority will be to give certainty to EU citizens about their legal status. Once that is decided, the European council will give the go ahead for next phase of withdrawal, which would involve working out a framework for the future relationship.

4. Citizens’ rights will be the “first priority of the negotiations”. The rights of EU and UK citizens will be protected when the UK formally leaves, which at this point looks as if it will be around March 2019. This means that any EU national who has been living in the UK for five years by that point will be protected.

5. “Flexible and imaginative solutions” will be sought to the thorny issue of the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic, which has been fluid since the Good Friday agreement. Negotiations will aim to avoid establishing a hard border, which it is feared could trigger a return to violence.

6. No final figure for the divorce has been given, but the bloc will pursue one “single financial settlement”, meaning the UK will continue budget payments until 2020.

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